RELATIONAL POWER: CULTIVATING EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE
“…Emotional intelligence, according to Goleman (1995), includes the capacity to self-regulate, delay gratification, empathize, be selfaware, and motivate oneself. In extending his focus to social intelligence, Goleman (2006) considers both social awareness (primal empathy, attunement, empathic accuracy, social cognition) and social facility (nonverbal synchrony, self-presentation, influence, concern for others).
The capacity to self-soothe when agitated emerges as one of the key ingredients for emotional and relational well-being in the neuroscience literature. In his earlier book, Goleman (1995) vividly described the ‘‘highjacking’’ of the brain by the amygdala, shutting down the higher brain. Siegel (1999) identifies ‘‘response flexibility’’ (p. 140) as central to emotional health; in the face of stress and discomfort, the individual with response flexibility is able to stay calm, or at least recover from an agitated state quickly. This is the high road, powered by the prefrontal cortex. It counters the impulsiveness and reactivity of the low road (Siegel & Hartzell, 2003). As Davidson (2004) notes, ‘‘The capacity for rapid recovery following negative events may define an important ingredient of resilience’’ (p. 1397).
According to Davidson, persons with anxiety and mood disorder often have difficulty with this recovery. Davidson has found that people with ‘‘a resilient affective style’’ tend to have ‘‘high levels of left prefrontal activation’’ (p. 1395) and lower levels of basal cortisol (a stress hormone). Reciprocally, high levels of right prefrontal activation are associated with a predominance of negative affect. Goleman (2006, p. 181) discusses Davidson’s finding that people have different emotional set points, ‘‘dour or upbeat,’’ related to their prefrontal activation profile. That our amygdalas will get activated and that we will wind up on the low road at times is a human given. How we learn to manage the low road may determine our emotional resilience. Research indicates that mindfulness meditation increases left prefrontal activation (Siegel, 2007), along with increased well-being and improved immune functioning.
Research has found that sick and elderly patients do better medically if they have a strong network of supportive relationships; Goleman (2006) refers to these nurturing supports as ‘‘biological allies’’ (p. 246). He notes, ‘‘Resonant relationships are like emotional vitamins, sustaining us through tough times and nourishing us daily’’ (p. 312). Conversely, data from a number of large epidemiological studies suggest that toxic relationships are as major a risk factor for disease and death as are smoking, high blood pressure, or cholesterol, obesity, and physical inactivity.
Relationships cut two ways: they can either buffer us from illness or intensify the ravages of aging and disease. (Goleman, 2006, p. 224) Some evidence suggests that marriage tends to have a positive effect on men’s health; for women, it depends on whether the marriage is satisfying. Women are more vulnerable to a stressful marriage than are their husbands; a woman’s stress hormones increase when her husband withdraws in anger and decrease when he is kind and empathic (Goleman, 2006; Taylor, 2002).
Some authors explain this difference on the basis of women being more invested in and attuned to their intimate relationships. Men are also vulnerable to marital stress; according to Gottman (1999), many men get flooded, with accelerated heart rate, in the face of conflict. Gottman links this phenomenon to men’s tendency to stonewall, a survival mechanism to shut off the potentially toxic stress produced by flooding. Despite the difficulties in couple relationships, humans do seem to be wired for love as well as connection; we have a tendency to form ‘‘pair bonds,’’ as do many of our relatives in the animal kingdom. Helen Fisher (2004), an anthropologist, has explored this topic extensively. In a study of people who were ‘‘crazy in love,’’ she observed their brain function in the fMRI machine as they looked at photos of their beloved. The part of the brain that was most activated is the same region affected by the use of addictive drugs such as cocaine: the caudate nucleus, part of the brain’s pleasure and reward system. Fisher posits that ‘‘romantic love is an addictive drug’’ (p. 182).
She goes on to spell out the shared physiological and psychological phenomena of these addictions, including the anguish of withdrawal when the drug or the lover is absent. Fisher (2004) proposes three different brain circuits for love, each with its own hormones and, in her description, evolutionary purpose. The first, which she calls lust, is fired by testosterone in both males and females and leads to sexual unions with various partners. The second, romantic love, is fired by dopamine and norepinephrine; its evolutionary goal, according to Fisher, is to focus courtship on a single mate. It lasts approximately 12–18 months. Finally, attachment, fired by the ‘‘cuddle chemicals’’ oxytocin and vasopressin (p. 89), serves, according to Fisher, to keep these mates together to rear their offspring together.
Oxytocin is most active in females; it is released with orgasm, birth, nursing, nurturing touch, and warm conversations (Carter, 2006). Males experience the release of oxytocin and its bonding effects; they are highly affected as well by vasopressin, a hormone related to oxytocin, released with ejaculation. In humans, oxytocin has many beneficial health effects. It reduces cortisol and other stress hormones (Carter). Pairing, attachment, and feeling safe all release oxytocin and are strengthened by it. By contrast, fear and chronic stress reduce oxytocin levels. Oxytocin helps bond mother and infant and is an active hormone in the nursing process. It lowers blood pressure, increasing a sense of peace and relaxation. Oxytocin is released ‘‘whenever we engage in affectionate contact with someone we care for’’ (Goleman, 2006, p. 216). The chemicals of love can contradict and undermine each other. Oxytocin and vasopressin can lower testosterone levels, and vice-versa.
‘‘The chemistry of attachment can dampen lust’’ (Fisher, 2004, p. 91). Likewise, lust does not necessarily stimulate romance or attachment. As Fisher says poignantly, ‘‘Alas, many of us . . . have periods in our lives where these three mating drives lust, romantic love, and attachment do not focus on the same person’’ (pp. 93–94).
- Fishbane, M. D. (2007). Wired to connect: Neuroscience, relationships, and therapy. Family Process, 46(3), 395-412.